Friday, January 18, 2013

Gotterdammerung Epics: THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG (2004)

Chances are, when you think of the word "opera" a portly woman in a ridiculous quasi-Viking armor making glasses shatter while belting out something tragic about love. Everybody knows the image, taken from early productions of one specific opera, "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Written over the span of 26 years (twenty six!) in the mid-1800s, German composer Richard Wagner used the epic 13th century poem "Nibelungenlied" as well as some Scandinavian and Greek mythology as a springboard to create an, at that time, unparalleled entertainment spectacle that originally ran for 15 hours over one night and three days. It has been performed lavish and impoverished, and like the myths that it's based on, it inspired a wealth of modern material from modern authors such as Robert E. Howard, George R. Martin, and even Gary Gygax. Oh, and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote that his epic, four-part trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," centering around the concept that death and misery are the only things that come out of greed, had absolutely no basis in Wagner's epic quadrilogy. "Both rings are round, and there the resemblance ceases," said Tolkien, and since Wagner was busy decomposing at the time, he really couldn't argue the point. This is a shame because I feel opera has a lot to offer, if you can get past all of the singing.

Appreciated by such luminaries as Chuck Jones and Adolf Hitler, Wagner's magnum opus is so firmly embedded in global pop culture that even King Arthur wouldn't be able to separate the two. Interestingly, it (or its source) appears to have only been made into cinematic form only twice before. The celebrated Fritz Lang filmed a massive, lavish two-part, five-hour version in 1924, titled DIE NIBELUNGEN, that altered some of the themes and concepts to fall in line with Lang's own philosophies about fate and destiny. It is this version of the story, that has permeated all subsequent adaptations. The infamous Harald Reinl directed a  remake in 1966 clocking in at over three hours, with an export title of WHOM THE GODS WISH TO KILL. It played around the world, but it is his follow up to the success of this huge-scale epic THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1976) that seems better remembered. There are also couple of send-ups. One of which, Dave Friedman's soft-core THE LONG SWIFT SWORD OF SIEGFRIED (1971), might be the only exposure to the story that most Americans have ever had, unless you count the Bugs Bunny cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?" The other is a 2005 German spoof, SIEGFRIED,  seemingly in the Farrelly / Wayans brothers style in which, among other things, Siegfried learns how to kiss via a flatulent swine. Seriously, only the Germans would make a low-brow comedy out of a 6th century legend.

A six year-old Siegfried wanders the castle ramparts, watching with calm wonder as an invading hoard floods into the castle, claiming the lives of his parents. Having been set adrift on the river, Siegfried ends up in the care of a humble blacksmith Eyvind (Max Von Sydow), who works for King Gunther (Samuel West) of Bergund (basically where Austria and Southern Germany are now). Now, apparently the oldest 18 year-old in cinematic history, Siegfried (32 year-old Benno Fürmann in a wig that would make Ator jealous) witnesses a meteor falling from the sky. Upon investigation he discovers that it's a strange metal of the likes of which he has never seen. Also falling into the category of things Siggy has never seen, he fights off a bandit who turns out to be the queen of Iceland, Brunnhild (Kristanna Løken, fresh off of TERMINATOR 3 and preparing to descend into the Boll's of hell for BLOODRAYNE). Because the runes had foretold Brunnhild's affair with the one man who could best her in combat, she and Siegfried hit it off under the stars, right next to the crater. Say, where did those blankets come from? She tells him that she will wait for him in Iceland to rule by her side. Seems simple enough. What could go wrong?

Meanwhile the dwarf Albrecht (Sean Higgs), gives the King's adviser Hagen (Julian Sands) the idea of raiding the dragon's lair for the vast treasure of the Nibelung. As soon as Siegfried picks up the meteor the next morning, the dragon awakens and sets about trashing villages as dragons are want to do. After the king is wounded and his best men killed while raiding the dragon's lair, Siegfried decides to use the metal from the meteor to fashion a sword with which he will slay the dragon and avenge the king's disgrace. After a fierce battle with the dragon, Siegfried discovers that in addition to an awesome peyote trip, the dragon's blood makes him invulnerable to weapons. The only hitch is that when he bathed in the blood of the dragon, there was a spot where a leaf had fallen from a tree onto his shoulder.

After slaying the dragon, Siegfried finds the fabled Treasure of the Nibelung; a vast hoard of gold that can only be owned by the one who possesses the Ring of the Nibelung. Just as Siegfried is about to hit the "loot" button, ghosts appear before him and they regret to inform him that he cannot have the treasure because it isn't his and it's cursed. If he would like to see what the curse does, he should look no further than Albrecht, who was banished from the ranks of the Nibelung and cursed to shrivel and turn ugly. Of course Siegfried ain't afraid of no ghosts and quickly grabs the preciou - err, the ring and cheerfully skips out of the cave. After being attacked by Albrecht, Siegfried agrees to spare his life in exchange for the Tarn Helm, a mask that will make him, not turn invisible as in the other adaptations, but change shape in order to look like someone else.

Siegfried, now considered a hero of the kingdom, is given a magic potion that will make him fall in love with the king's sister Kriemhild (Alicia Witt, looking much like Jennifer Jason Leigh in FLESH + BLOOD). In addition to that, King Gunther talks Siegfried into using the mask to best Brunnhild (remember her?) in combat since he is a complete wuss and she will only marry someone who can wrestle her to the ground. I imagine it gets very cold in Iceland and they have to come up with some way to keep warm. Of course all of these lies and treachery lead to a more and more tangled web of deceit that can't help but fall into a death spiral.

German TV director Uli Edel, who previously gave us the Shakespeare reworking, THE KING OF TEXAS (2002) with Patrick Stewart, does a serviceable job remaking Lang's seminal silent film. Clocking in at just over three hours long, this sucker moves like a downhill freight train, frantically trying to stuff ten pounds of epic into a five pound bag of holding. This is with the script only adapting what is essentially only one part of Wagner's opera, "Gotterdammerung". Edel directs the film with a solemnity that almost makes it feel like a '60 period epic in its earnestness. This is a double edged sword because on the one hand, the production believes in its telling of a great, centuries old masterpiece, unlike say CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010), in which it felt like those involved with the production just wanted to get it over with so they could go home. On the other hand, that sort of intentness of purpose is undermined by egregious miscasting of Benno Fürmann, who, to be fair, does have a sign of life, unfortunately that sign reads "out to lunch". Not only does he look a little creepy, but his reading of certain scenes are bordering on juvenile. Perhaps it's due to the fact that he is supposed to be playing a part that is half his age, but it comes off like he is a mentally disabled side of beefcake and it's hard to see why these beautiful women are throwing themselves at him. Actually, come to think of it, that is pretty much true to life.

The three credited screenwriters Diane Duane, Peter Morwood and Uli Edel, seem to want to say a lot of things about some heady subjects such as the conflict between the still relatively new-ish Catholicism and the pagan gods, who are here identified strangely by their Greek names. After a voice-over narrator tells us of this clash is continuing in the last place on earth where Christianity hasn't dominated, there really isn't much made of it after that. At one point Siegfried's adopted father Eyvind off-handedly remarks "the Christians... they're a strange lot." In another scene, during the celebration of the dragon's killing, Eyvind puts the moves on a Christian woman, who likes the way he swings his hammer and tells him that she will be a pagan that night. Forget the whole "my Maserati is parked out back" routine, the "Thor is my god" line works like a charm! Other than that, the profound statements seem to have gone missing somewhere along the line. The other thing that seems to have been lost along the way is Siegfried's complicity in his own downfall. Here Siegfried is a pretty nice guy who may let things go to his head a bit, but when it comes to all the dirty work, Siegfried is persuaded by others instead of coming up with the ideas himself. It heightens the tragic aspect, I guess, but it also hobbles the morality play. It's also interesting that the details are fudged a little bit to make it more like LORD OF THE RINGS. The golden circle is complete.

Released in a variety of markets under other interesting titles such as CURSE OF THE RING and SWORD OF XANTEN, surprisingly, the film did get a Stateside DVD release via Sony Pictures under the most interesting title of all, DARK KINGDOM: THE DRAGON KING (huh?). Not surprisingly this version is cut by over fifty minutes of footage. Yes, that is almost one third of the movie that hit the cutting room floor. I actually considered watching this version so that I could discuss what was cut out here, but considering my synopsis above really covers only the first half of the movie, I think it's pretty obvious that the cut version would be an incomprehensible mess and I'll leave it at that.

The first Brünnhilde and the latest.
The cast, Fürmann not withstanding, is actually reasonably solid. Julian Sands (in what appears to be a modified '50s era wig) actually underplays a role that is normally fodder for extreme scenery chewing, leaving that to Higgs' Albrecht. I'm actually really surprised that Kristanna Løken hasn't been snatched up by HBO for GAME OF THRONES, as she shows some real talent whenever given anything remotely physical to do, whether it is hogtying the king on their wedding night or furiously battling Siegfried in the middle of a feast. Also, I guess it should be noted that Robert Pattinson has a supporting role as the Prince of Bergund, and in spite of what I thought the releases titled KINGDOM IN TWILIGHT are purely coincidental  The fight scenes are surprisingly well staged for a TV movie, even though it appears that many are staged in front of a rear-projection screen (damn, I thought those went out with button shoes) and while some of the CGI are a bit archaic, others, such as the dragon, are quite well done. In spite of its shortcomings and occasional cheeseballery (such as an aging Max Von Sydow dual-wielding broadswords to fend off two Saxon soldiers) I enjoyed this adaptation quite a bit and hope that it will help get another, bigger adaptation in front of the cameras in the future.

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